The recent revelation of Tesco’s exploitation of government workfare policy is the latest twist in the neoliberal nightmare we are living under. An advert for a night shift worker on the east Anglia Job Centre Plus website advertised the wage as “JSA plus expenses”. Essentially the lucky candidate is to work on Tesco’s night shift in order to retain their Job Seekers Allowance or risk losing it. Despite the Tesco PR machine moving in to claim that the advert was a technical error (presumably some technically incompetent buffoon has typed in the wrong policy) it has been enough to reveal the extent to which workfare policy is being used by private firms (Tesco, Asda, the Arcadia group to name but a few) and the government alike.
Initially introduced under New Labour, Workfare was part of the logic that there were sections of British society that were “culturally hostile to work and social order”. Just as during the industrial revolution the population had to “learn the discipline of the factory bell”, so too must this new “underclass” learn to be disciplined by compulsory work. Failure to complete Mandatory Work Activity of 30 weekly hours would result in the loss of basic Job Seekers Allowance of £67.50 a week. Despite being defended against criticism of “forced labour” by claiming the work would be of ” benefit to the community” the policy is now being openly used by private firms to gain access to government subsidised labour. By some terrifying twist of logic the government have convinced themselves that learning the discipline of forced labour is in fact of benefit to the community. Viewed in the context of the current recession and austerity, it reveals the contradictions of the current crisis.
As the government continues to gut the public sector, the private sector is being aided at both ends of the profit making process: free labour at the start and tax cuts at the end. Recent research by the Fair Pay Network provides damning evidence that any such aid is required. The explosion in executive pay amongst the big four supermarkets dispels any argument that tax cuts encourage productive investment. Evidence showing that staff are payed “poverty wages” leave no room to claim that there is a “wage squeeze” on profits. Of the 1400 people forced to work for Tesco over the past 4 months only 300 have been given a job with the company, the majority of which are part time ‘flexi’ contracts. Even by it’s own logic these measures cannot expect to pull the economy out of recession.
The argument for reducing the country’s deficit is simple: prune the public sector so that the private sector can flourish. But, as quarterly breakdowns of the country’s economic progress reveal increasing unemployment and sluggish if not contracting economic growth austerity is empirically proven to have failed. However, as is often the case in politics, statistics mean nothing if it damages government credibility and undermines the prevailing ideology.
If we are to view the current crisis as one of neoliberalism in total and not simply a case of overspending then we can begin to gain a clearer picture of why the government are committed to their current trajectory. The encroachment of all spheres of public life by the free market, facilitated by a deregulated financial system and corporate tax cuts, has been the ruling ideology over the last 30 years. Despite it’s disastrous results governments across the world are greeting the crisis by pursuing neoliberalism to the nth degree. With no alternative being presented from the mainstream left or right, neoliberalism on steroids is the default solution to the crisis.
Despite no official response from the trade unions there is fostering resentment toward workfare as the Tesco Facebook page shows. Just as campaign groups such as UK Uncut fought the rich and the government on tax cuts and tax avoidance, so to must the anti cuts movement take this opportunity to challenge workfare. It combines all the elements of the current crisis: the unemployed, the working poor, the potential for union militancy and of course the relationship between a government of millionaires and big business. At the heart of it Workfare is a manifestation of neoliberal ideology, a victory against this policy can help generalise the idea that if we want a decent economy and a decent society we better stop looking to big business for the answers.